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Archive for the ‘Troika’ Category

It Is Done

It is complete.

My debt has been paid.

The book written by my former college roommate (and typed by myself) has now been published.

Form Your Troika: Ten Lessons for Life / Ten Steps to Death
is now available here.

The question I now have (other than “Is David okay?”) is how to publicize a book without him knowing about it.

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It Begins

Since I starting writing this blog, one of my recurring themes has been the manuscript sent to me by my former college roommate, David G. Over the years, I have typed out and published on this page some of the chapters he wrote out describing his wish to commit suicide. The last time I posted anything by David was nearly two years ago when I posted the first part of his Chapter 5.

However, I have not been idle with David’s work.

I have spent the last pair of years (with time off for the move between France and Thailand) editting and typing out David’s work (which I pray is not his last).

While I am not yet 100% complete, I am nearly there and hope to have his completed work out by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, I have signed up with the online publishing website, Booksie, to put what is complete out on the Web.

Today, I put up the first two chapters of Form Your Troika. You can start here.

We’ll see how this experiment goes.

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I have written before about the concept of the troika, an idea dreamed up by my former college roommate. The troika is a group of three people (living and/or dead) who can either be Muses or who are simply folk that embody qualities to be emulated.

In one of the first posts of this blog, I gave my troika as painter Claude Monet, comedian George Carlin, and author Douglas Adams.

I would now like to update and amend that threesome to now be the following…

For his creativity, the first member of my new troika is writer and director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers);

For her amazing bravery in the face of adversity (and a bullet), the second member is education activist Malalai Yousafzai.

Finally, for following his passion until the utter end, the third member of my troika is wildlife expert and television personality Steve Irwin, also known as The Crocodile Hunter.

If I can only come close to emulating this troika‘s creativity, bravery, and passion, I will be a happy atom.

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Enough

In honor of my former college roommate, David G., and in memory of American poet Sara Teasdale, whose birthday was 128 years ago, I offer up Teasdale’s poem, “Enough”.

ENOUGH

It is enough for me by day
To walk the same bright earth with him;
Enough that over us by night
The same great roof of stars is dim.

I have no care to bind the wind
Or set a fetter on the sea–
It is enough to feel his love
Blow by like music over me.

David, wherever you are, it is my prayer that you have found a meaning in your life that is enough.

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It’s been nearly two months since I last posted the scribblings from my former college roommate, David. Here is the first part of his fifth chapter. It was semi-large, so I thought I would break it up.

As before, here’s my disclaimer regarding David: He wrote in somewhat haphazardly and often left parts of the manuscript incomplete or with notes to himself on how to possibly improve his choice of words. I will try to recreate this mode of his by using brackets and the bold font [Like this]. I have also attempted to correct some of his spelling errors, but not all.

>>>>>>>>>>
Form Your Troika – CHAPTER 05
(Part 1 of 2)

LET ME TAKE YOUR PICTURE

When I was a kid, there was a television program that aired on Sundays called Big Blue Marble.
Kids nowadays have no idea what it was like in those caveman-like days of the mid-1970s. Yes, they may have heard the horror stories of an existence where people had only three national television networks to choose from (and were damn happy to have them) but do they actually believe the DVD-less (nay, VCR-less) tales of the days of their elders? No, kids today have cable and with cable comes channels catering exclusively to children. With Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon on all the time, youngsters today have no concept of what it is like to wait for the weekends because that’s when the cartoons and other kid shows came on the tube.

My harangue is not with the current violent state of cartoons because most of today’s animated television shows aimed at young children are less violent than when I grew up. Match up The Wild Thornberrys with the Roadrunner-Coyote cartoons or pit Dexter’s Laboratory against Tom and Jerry and you’ll see that the cartoons of yesteryear portray much more violence than those of today.

“But wait,” I hear you interject, “what about shows like Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Teen Titans?”

It’s a fair question and let’s take it in reverse order. Teen Titans, and by extension Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and System Shock fit into the genre of superhero cartoons where fisticuffs save the day and the world. In my day, we had Super Friends, Spider-Man (the one with the great theme song), and the original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Violence in those cartoons was also used to show that good triumphs over evil. Remember that my main point is not that today’s cartoons are free of violence. The point I’m trying to convey is that cartoons of yore were more, or at least just as, violent as the current fare.

The violence shown in Yu-Gi-Oh! is all based in fantasy. It is not the main characters of Yugi, Tristan, and Joey who smash each other around. It is their cards and the monsters portrayed on those dueling artifacts that do all the battles. The duels are not real as they all take place in a holographic setting. Children [can and] do understand the difference between reality and fantasy.

Don’t believe me? I will offer only one example as proof. For this experiment, you will need a child between the ages of two and four. The first time a child of that age hears about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, their instinct is to not believe in the reality of such creatures. They will begin to ask questions that attempt to poke holes in these legends. Who, as a parent, hasn’t heard the following questions?

“How does Santa get down the chimney?”
“What about houses that have no chimney?”
“How does Santa know which houses are Jewish?”
“How does the Tooth Fairy carry all that change?”
“How does she know when I lose a tooth?”
“What does she do with all those teeth?”

Children only begin to truly believe in these characters because adults keep drumming it into their heads that these people do indeed exist. Parents go to extreme lengths to answer such reasonable questions with preposterous responses such as “It’s magic” or “Just because”.
Have you ever seen a child really deeply distraught when they discover Santa Claus is not real? No, you haven’t, because they, deep down, knew it was a fantasy all the time. They were probably curious why the adults couldn’t see that.

Plus, they kept receiving presents, so why should they kill that imaginary golden goose?

So far I’m two for two in showing you that superhero cartoons are no more violent than they were thirty years ago and what does qualify as violent today is pure fantasy. That leaves Dragon Ball Z. Yes, I concede that the battles that occur are graphic and violent. I could fall back on my previous contention that children understand that this violence is fantasy, but I won’t because there is a larger point to make. Dragon Ball Z is for older children. Plus, it has a rating of [what is the rating?] and is therefore not meant for the younger crowd.

If you disagree with my contention that cartoons today are less violent that those of days gone by, that’s fine by me. Simply remember that as a parent you have final control over what your child sees. If you are upset that your kid saw some violent cartoon, the responsibility, and the remote, is ultimately yours.

Pardon me while I retain my bearings. I was driving down the road of weekend cartoons and seemed to have gone down a path of cartoon violence. Let me just back the car up and return to the highway of my main thought. Thanks for your patronage.

My original point was about the loss of the uniqueness of cartoons on the weekends. When I was growing up, the weekends were special because those were the only days when I could watch Super Chicken (“Fred, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”), Popeye, The Herculoids, and a string of others. However, I have now come to realize that my moping to the youth of today about what has been lost is pointless. I’m sure my parents bemoaned what I would never experience (e.g., malt shops) as their own parents were wistful over what they would miss (e.g., flappers, Lindy Hop). Keying in on what kids today are missing misses what children do have today that we didn’t. I may lament the specialness [is there a better word for this?] of the weekend, but I didn’t have a computer when I was ten. My parents may have pined for the malt shop, but I went to an integrated school. My grandparents might have regretted the fact that their kids would never dance the Lindy Hop, but their children never had to go through the privations of the Great Depression. I am powerless to stop this trend as I’m sure the kids of today will look back and wax nostalgic for the good old days when there were actual sitcoms on television, but will probably not give a second thought to the fact that their kids insert your own optimistic vision of the future that could include space travel, a triumph over hunger, nanomedicine, or even an end to television sitcoms.

Rounding back to where I started, I was speaking of the extinct television show Big Blue Marble. This show offered its viewers the opportunity to connect with a pen pal from around the world. For my younger readers, “pen pal” was the chat buddy of an earlier era. I was intrigued by this chance to make a new friend, but since I was only six, I was not yet proficient at writing. So, I asked my mother for help. At the start of 1975, my mother dashed off a note to the television show and a month later, I had received the instructions on how to contact my new pen pal, a boy named Xanana who lived in the extremely far off land of East Timor.

I wrote my first letter immediately. Actually, I dictated as my mother wrote the letter. I don’t remember exactly what was in that missive, but I do remember I asked many questions about where he lived including where West Timor was.

That summer, I received my first response. The first clue that there was something different about this envelope was the number of exotic-looking air mail stamps on it. It is much to my discredit that I did not save this letter. While the correspondence undoubtedly has personal value, the writings of an East Timorese child from the mid-1970s would also be of great value from a cultural and historical perspective. Sadly, those are not the thoughts of a six-year-old so this letter is lost.

I recall that I did reply in late 1975 and I do remember asking my mom early the next year why Xanana hadn’t written back. Her reply, to my young mind, was odd. She said that courtesy of Henry Kissinger, my pen pal probably wouldn’t be writing back.

Thus ended my first endeavor into the world of pen pals.

While my third and last foray into the realm of long-distance correspondence does not end with the Indonesian annexation of a sovereign country glossed over by a wink and a nod from the Nixon Administration, it did teach me Lesson Five.

In March of 1991, I was on-line. I am in no way trying to claim that I was in the forefront of Internet usage. No, when I say I was on-line, I mean that I was a subscriber to Prodigy. Being on Prodigy back then is to the Internet today as a paper airplane is to a Saturn V rocket. Prodigy was simply a souped-up computer bulletin board system. This on-line service provided e-mail and moderated forums for participants to spew forth on any subject. This was different from the Internet of the really early 1990s because Prodigy was somewhat user-friendly. The Internet, before it became mega-popular [add the comment that current scholarly research puts that date of mega-popularity as October 27, 1994], was accessible only to those savvy enough to navigate a tangle of cryptic command-line prompts.

I would like to take this moment and offer my praise to Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web and then, in an incredible display of altruism, gave it away. I can’t imagine how difficult the on-line experience would be today if Tim had followed the path of greed, patented his creation, and forced everyone to pay him royalties.

Thank you, Tim.

So I was on-line, using Prodigy, with the oh-so-easy-to-remember screen name of MHXLYZ10. Do you know how America Online (AOL) beat the pants off Prodigy? It’s because AOL allowed users to create their own screen names like SexyChick and DodgersFan instead of Prodigy’s style of assigning random numbers and letters. I’m not a marketing genius, but I would say that’s one reason why AOL is still up and running and Prodigy is mentioned in the same breath as Elias Howe and the Betamax.

Logged on as MHK…etc., I point-and-clicked my way to the science fiction/fantasy (SFF) forum to see what people were posting. My purpose in trawling [do I use "trolling" or is that word too negative?] these virtual 3×5 cards was because I was curious to see what authors and books other people were reading and talking about. I had already passed through my Piers Anthony phase and I was coming out of my Robert Heinlein period so I was trying to see where I should go next.

Those phases that I mentioned above are not hard-and-fast names. They are unique to me, but in general, I believe every person who develops a lifelong fascination with SFF literature goes through three phases.

The early phase is when a youngster becomes hooked on SFF. My entry into this world was Piers Anthony. I had started off with his fantasy Xanth series in high school and moved on to his Bio of a Space Tyrant quintet. The authors of early phase SFF write easy to read novels that hooks the young adult.

If enough interest is kindled and if the early phase books were well written, the reader may move on to the next phase, which I call the historical phase. This is where the reader learns that there exists a whole pantheon of SFF classics. From Bradbury to Niven to Zelazny, the reader in the historical phase of their education is flooded with the giants of the genre.

For me, that giant was Robert Heinlein.

A friend from high school, Erin, had given me a five-book set of Heinlein’s works [tomes?] for my birthday. One of those books was Stranger in a Strange Land. I will say nothing more about this book and let you discover [use "grok"? Or is that too inside?] it for yourself (if you so wish).

A person may end their reading career in this phase because the library is so vast and so satisfying. Years can be spent reading about Asimov’s robots, Herbert’s worlds, and Verne’s explorers. This may be satisfying to some, but there is another phase for those who wish to dare.

This third phase is the exploratory phase and it involves reading the latest offerings in the genre. The downside is that there is a good deal of contemporary drivel out there. The upside is that for every five warmed-over, boilerplate, one-man-against-the-empire ore samples, there is a true gem unearthed like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. [Not that he needs my glowing praise]

Back to Prodigy and I scrolled through the posts trying to see what was out there when I saw “Ursula K. Le Guin” in the subject header of a random post. Her name caught my eye as I had just completed her book, The Left Hand of Darkness. Writing that previous sentence these many years later, I must admit that I remember little about that story. However, I do recall being extremely moved by the issues and themes portrayed in her novel. I do apologize for not having more to say about this book in my writing because she is a fine writer [duplicate the comment a la Gibson that she doesn't need my praise?]. I would suggest purchasing a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, if you’ve already read Wizard, I would suggest Changing Planes. If you’ve already read Planes, then might I suggest The Lathe of Heaven. Of course, if you’ve already read Lathe, then you need no words from me to say what a fantastic weaver of words she is.

So there was this message on my screen with the statement [statement? there must be a better word] that the writer had recently finished Wizard and wondered if there any other books by Le Guin. I was feeling rather magnanimous and, I can be frank enough to admit this, I wanted to show off. What’s the use of knowing something if you can’t take it out of your head and share it with someone else. The proverb “You can’t take it with you” often refers to material goods (which is also why coffins don’t come equipped with baggage compartments), but I believe the adage is equally valid for ideas and thoughts. One of my favorite Latin sayings (okay, I only have two Latin sayings that I am fond of) is Cum ingens labor, tu cognitionem et moriamini which translates loosely as “With immense labor, you obtain knowledge and then you die.” To me, the point of acquiring knowledge and experience is to share it. Hence my raison d’etre for this book.

Also, hence my response to AIG16OEG.

>>>>>>>>>>

Part B of this chapter will show the consequences of his response.

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Form Your Troika – Chapter 04

Here is the latest chapter I have managed to decipher from the collection of scrawlings on various notebooks that were sent to me by my former college roommate, David G.

As before, here’s my disclaimer regarding David: He wrote in somewhat haphazardly and often left parts of the manuscript incomplete or with notes to himself on how to possibly improve his choice of words. I will try to recreate this mode of his by using brackets and the bold font [Like this]. I have also attempted to correct some of his spelling errors, but not all.

>>>>>>>>>>
Form Your Troika – CHAPTER 04

IMMORTAL

I have had three pen pals in my life. My longest running correspondence has been with Al. Her real name is Allison, but she simply liked to be called Al. I can only imagine the number of jokes she had to deflect when that Paul Simon song came out.

Al attended my high school for our freshman and sophomore years. We had mutual friends, but we were never that close. In our junior year, she moved to Nebraska. In that summer before she left, we held a farewell party for her. It was at that gathering that Al and I had our first in-depth talk. We continued it as I drove her home and we finished it in her driveway around midnight. It would be my awful sense of timing that we would connect right before she would leave. We exchanged addresses and we promised to write.

The United States Census Bureau has concluded that when two high-schoolers promise that they will write, the average number of letters actually sent is around 2.6.

Al and I definitely shattered that average.

Through high school and college (where she attended the University of Pennsylvania), a letter was either sent or received every two months. In addition to the words on the page, a tradition arose where we began to attempt to outdo each other with the artwork on our envelopes.

In this era of e-mail, I feel something has been lost. I grant that mail delivered via bits and bytes is easier and faster, but I can still hear Al talk when I see her handwriting in all of the letters that I have saved. Plus, I can always marvel at her artistic skills. Of the examples I can share with you is the envelope where my address was inserted into a crossword grid. There was the drawing where my address was looking at its reflection in a mirror. My personal favorite was the one where the front of the envelope resembled a maze. Al had “solved” the maze and the line that went from START to FINISH spelled out my address. I give my utmost respect not only to Al for her amazing creativity, but also to the mail carrier who had to decipher these works of art.

Sadly, I can’t recall any of my creations.

When’s the last time you printed out and saved an email [Is it "email" or "e-mail"?] from a friend?

In our junior year of college, she wrote me a letter that posed the question that would become the precursor of my To Death List. She asked me what were the three things I wanted to accomplish before I died. However, she threw in a restriction. She said that one item had to be a long-shot, one item had to involve a physical act, and one item had to deal with art.

This question was almost as big a challenge as the time she wrote me a letter, ripped it up, and I had to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle to see what she had written.

The first two items of Al’s request were easy for me. After a few years of searching and hitting dead ends, my long-shot item was finding my biological parents. As for the physical act, you tell me what a male twenty-year-old virgin would want to do. Having sex filled that slot.

I was stuck on the art category. Before I would have a chance to write Al, I was going on a road trip to Chicago with Ophelia to visit some friends of hers. I was pleased by this outing because I would have the chance to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. This museum houses George Seurat’s masterpiece of pointillism, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. I first saw this painting courtesy of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In their adventure around the Windy City, the trio of Ferris (Matthew Broderick), [what was the female character's name?] (Mia Sara), and Cameron (Alan Ruck) hit this museum. In one of my favorite cinematic moments that does not involve dialogue, Cameron is seen staring at Seurat’s painting. In a series of increasing close-ups, the camera switches between Cameron and the little girl in white who stands in the center of the work. I am sure that this moment is meant to convey some sort of internal transformation of Cameron, but it eludes me.

Art is like that at times.

When the message conveyed by the work doesn’t reach the receiver. Is this the fault of the artist or the viewer (or listener or reader)?

When I answer that question I’ll let you know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Fortunately such questions will not plague me for much longer.

Damn, I’ve digressed again. Let’s return to the Art Institute of Chicago circa 1989, shall we?

While Ophelia spent some quality time with her friends from high school who now attended Northwestern University, I stole away and managed to find my way to the museum courtesy of that epitome of public transportation, the “el”.

I did see Seurat’s work and it was also here that I first saw Claude Monet’s Cliff Walk at Pourville, which to my eyes (and please feel free to disagree) is the finest example of Impressionist painting that graces any public or private wall.

Neither of these paintings nor any of the other dozens of pieces of art I saw that April day stopped me in my tracks.

Except one.

As I was walking away from the Monet, I glimpsed the backside of a larger-than-life size bronze sculpture of a man in a robe. I came around to the front and looked up at the man’s face.

I was dumbstruck.

Up until that point, I didn’t know it was possible to freeze an emotion in bronze. I stared hard at the face trying to figure out if this man was scared, sad, determined, resigned, or fearful. It was entirely possible that all these feelings and a great deal more were being portrayed.

I pried my eyes away from that visage to look at the information card. It told me I was looking at one of the six figures of Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. The card gave some background data on the story of the Burghers.

During the Hundred Years’ War, where England and France were having one of their usual skirmishes, the French city of Calais fell to the English forces in 1347. Edward III, the guy sitting on the English throne, offered to spare the populace if the city’s leaders, the Burghers, would surrender themselves. Because giving up wasn’t enough, Ed-the-third mandated that the leaders present themselves to the English nearly naked and with nooses around their necks.

Rodin’s sculpture freezes this moment when the Burghers walk out of the city on their way to greet death.

I was dumbstruck and stunned.

At the age of twenty, death had never touched me. No one in my immediate family had passed away and I had not lost any friends. Death was as alien to me as sex.

Now here I was staring at the face of a man who was staring at his own death – a death he was volunteering for. At my age, that type of sacrifice is unheard of. Yet here I was, face-to-face with a visage captured in bronze that was evoking just that type of feeling.

This lone figure is a man holding a giant key (presumably a key to Calais), dressed in a simple one-piece garment, and with a noose around his neck. The stoic look in this gentleman’s face is stunning to view. His frozen bronze frown, along with the hollow far-off look in the eyes, appears to denote an almost resigned sense of calm or acceptance. This is a man who seems to be saying, without words, “Let’s simply do this.”

For the first time, a piece of art made me feel an emotion I had never experienced. At no point in my life until now had I ever seen such a personification of the fatalistic acceptance of one’s own impending demise. In that instant, I knew the answer to Al’s third item. Since there were five other figures in Rodin’s piece, it was now apparent to me that before I died, I would need to…

View The Burghers of Calais in total

The rapture and revelation I felt at that moment upon viewing that statue would cool as the days passed and I would give Al’s challenge no more than a glancing thought until a year later when serendipity led me to the musical genius that is Sara Hickman. A year after that discovery (we’re now in 1991 for those of you following along on a calendar), I realized I had no chance of finding a complete set of Rodin’s martyrs. So, as the representative of the “art” category on Al’s list, I decided to scratch The Burghers of Calais and replace it with seeing Sara Hickman in concert.

Rodin’s masterpiece would be reinstated, as Item Six, when the middle of 1996 rolled around and the list morphed from Al’s original concept of a To Do List to the To Death List that it is now.

[Do I want to discuss going to the Rodin show with Desiree in San Diego and seeing The Thinker, The Kiss, Balzac, Gates of Hell, but no Burghers?]

[When did Salvador Dali exhibit appear at the Hirshhorn?]

Sherman, set the WABAC Machine and fast forward to [month] of 2001 [?]. Living in Maryland, I was close enough to the National Mall that I would often spend at least one weekend a month visiting the various buildings that comprise the Smithsonian Institution. In the first years I was on the East Coast, I spent most of my Mall time at the Air and Space Museum, the National History Museum, and the American History Museum. I would make the occasional foray into both wings of the National Art Gallery and the various memorials (Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Signers of the Declaration of Independence), but I normally kept my sojourns on the Mall to the three museums in the preceding sentence.

Serendipity guided my eyes as I read in the “Weekend” section of The Washington Post that the Hirshhorn Museum was hosting an exhibit of works by Salvador Dali. I had always walked by this building while going from the Smithsonian Metro station to the Air and Space Museum, but I had never experienced it. Here, with the Dali exhibit, was my invitation to enter this circular gallery and see what it had to offer.

The exhibit was small but pleasant and gave me the chance to see more works by Dali other than The Persistence of Memory. After viewing the other pieces of art inside the Hirshhorn, I walked outside and looked at the other sculptural works as the full name of this locale actually is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculptural Garden.

You know where this is already going, don’t you?

After completing the circle of the main grounds, I walked out onto Jefferson Drive and saw a sign across the street that stated that the sculptural gardens continued. I strolled across the one-way avenue and walked down the right-hand side stairs.

I turned left and there he was.

The face that had pierced me in Chicago was again staring through me.

He was not alone.

Sharing his pedestal were the five other Burghers.

I approached slowly as if any sudden movement of mine would cause the metal men to scatter like pigeon on the sidewalk.

Standing in the foreground and on the right of this work was the man who had haunted me in Chicago. To my left, and also in the foreground, was a man facing away from me. He also had a rope on him, but it was not quite around his neck. It was loosely draped over his left shoulder. His right arm gestures upward and he appears to be engaged in conversation with the Burgher to his right. In my mind, he is answering the question posed by the gentleman behind him. He seems to be saying, “What would you suggest we do?” His acceptance of his fate seems less stoic than the man I saw in Chicago as this man is gesturing and being active.

The man doing the questioning (in the background all the way to the left…and let’s call him Six) has his left arm outstretched. His mouth is open and I can hear him pleading, “Isn’t there another way?” Tacit acceptance does not seem to be Six’s way.

To (by my perspective) the right of Six and the center figure in the background is a man whose countenance seems to give off an impression of chagrined fatalism. His mouth, a mixture of a frown and smirk, seems to be transmitting his inner thought of “This is what must be done.” His eyes are not as hollow as the lone figure I saw in Chicago as if he is still having some debate or thoughts about his fate whereas the Chicago bronze settled that inner argument long ago.

In the center of the work stands a heavily bearded man with a noose firmly around his neck. He is caught in the act of moving so his garment has fallen away from part of his body exposing his naked and gaunt left leg. His head is bowed and he looks tired, beaten, and worn down. However defeated he may be, he is still moving toward his destiny of sacrificing himself to save others. He has moved past the stoicism of Chicago-Statue into actual action. He is the only figure moving toward the viewer and, I believe, toward his death.

The last figure, all the way on the right and in the background is the complete opposite of the heavily bearded figure. This statue epitomizes despair. There is no stoic resolve, there is no questioning, there is no acceptance. This figure has both his hands covering his bowed head. It is nearly impossible to see this man’s face, but his hands and his stance are enough to convey his pain and dismay.

In one tableau, Rodin managed to capture some of the stages a person goes through when faced with death. Despair, questioning, answering, stoicism, acceptance, and action are all on display.

With three items on my To Death List now completed, I found myself contemplating a question I had chosen to ignore.

How would I face my own death?

When faced with personal and troubling questions, I have found that the poetry of Sara Teasdale can be illuminating. Her work, such as “Immortal” below, may not answer my questions, but is that Art’s purpose [or "problem"?] or ours?

IMMORTAL

So soon my body will have gone
Beyond the sound and sight of men,
And tho’ it wakes and suffers now,
Its sleep will be unbroken then;
But oh, my frail immortal soul
That will not sleep forevermore,
A leaf borne onward by the blast,
A wave that never finds the shore.

When the time came to do what I planned to do, would I face the prospect of my own non-existence with the stoic resolve of the man I first saw in Chicago, the acting acceptance of the heavily bearded man, the questioning of Six, or would I, when I “sleep forevermore”, cry, wail, and howl as I never find my shore?

>>>>>>>>>>

Previous chapters from David can be read here (Chapter 00, Chapter 01, Chapter 02, Chapter 03).

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It has been a while since I last posted any writings from my former college roommate, David G. As much as I would like to blame this dearth on the chaos in our household with our move, but the blame lies with me. I was so ticked off and disgusted by what he wrote in his last chapter, that I couldn’t read any more of what he had to say.

My mistake.

Given the fact that I now live in a foreign country, do not have a job, and do have a good deal of time on my hands, I swallowed my bile and read through the rest of the material that David sent me. Now that I have the whole story (or most of it), I now know what I need to do.

It is my plan to take his scribblings and accomplish one of his wishes. In this way, I hope to settle my debt with him (wherever he is) and maybe even do some good. Because of my new plan, I will not be posting all of David’s Chapter 03, but just the start. Plus, I don’t know how much words I can put on WordPress in one post.

Here’s my disclaimer regarding David: As I have written before about David’s style of writing, he wrote in somewhat haphazardly and often left parts of the manuscript incomplete or with notes to himself on how to possibly improve his choice of words. I will try to recreate this mode of his by using brackets and the bold font [Like this]. I have also attempted to correct some of his spelling errors, but not all.

If you want to play catch-up with what David has penned before, you can jump to Chapter 00, Chapter 01, and Chapter 02.

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Form Your Troika - Chapter 03

SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Still with me?

Thanks for hanging around after reading my thoughts in the last chapter. Good on ya’, mate, as the Aussies say.

I wouldn’t hold it against you either, and, in fact, I would even understand it, if you had actually thrown this book into a crucible.

So if I find no answers in the Big Four of Western organized religion, what is my answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”

With apologies to Douglas Adams and all the other great philosophers that have pondered this question, my answer is relatively simple.

Life has no meaning.

Continuing on from that premise, if life has no meaning, then what is its purpose? Again, my answer is simple.

The purpose of life is to live.

The purpose of life is to live it and to experience all that life has to offer. There is no need for an all-seeing, jealous, vengeful, kind, merciful, or absent-minded deity or deities in this philosophy. This belief system does not prescribe a set of rules denoting what foods can and cannot be eaten, the proper way to sacrifice a ewe, the role (or lack thereof) of women in society, or what is permissible and forbidden on a Saturday or Sunday.

“Wait!” I hear the old religious side of me cry out. “If all laws are based on moral underpinnings, what does the lack of religion do to society and its foundations?”

My answer, once again, is simple, but uses more words.

I reject the premise of the question and assert that the laws of any society do not need religion to serve as its base. I would actually contend that an organized faith as a foundation inflicts more damage than good. For those who wish to live in a land where religion truly is the law, I would suggest moving to Iran, Pakistan, or (if you have a handy time machine) Spain during the time of the Inquisition (which no one expected me to use as an example) and see how life treats you then.

I believe that it is entirely possible to form and run a society without the crutch of an organized religion. Because, casting a reference back to my previous chapter, who wants a society run by scared children?

If I ran a society, what would its guiding principles be? The first one (“The purpose of life is to live”) I’ve already mentioned. Others I would include are…
…The Emerson Principle (Hence the less government we have the better); [a government should have few laws]
…The Analects Principle (Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself); [treat others they way you want to be treated]
…The Yul Brynner Principle (So shall it be written, so shall it be done); [laws should be followed as written, not interpreted broadly]
…The Lord Palmerston Principle (Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests) [self-explanatory or not?]
[Expand on Principles here and what implications they would have on society]

How would such a set of principles be put into practice?

Don’t ask me…I’m just the idea man.

In college, a hall-mate of mine (Lamar would be his name) and I came up with our own theory of Reality. Trapped in our dorm as we were during a typical Wisconsin snowstorm, we decided to muse on the true notion of things. Of course, when discussing such profound ideas, it helps to be three sheets to the wind. Lamar was partial to wine coolers while sake was my poison of choice. After some fits and starts we concluded that all we perceive as Reality is actually the product of the imagination of a frustrated playwright living in Brussels, Belgium. This unnamed author is extremely prolific and writes the major and minor plot points of people’s lives. Lamar and I came to a stumbling block in our grand unifying theory when we tried to describe why the events of a person’s life sometimes go haywire. Lamar was a writer himself and said that authors do not insert bizarre or whimsical events in a character’s life without proper motivation.

That’s when we stumbled across Her. We surmised that the reason why a person’s life took a turn from the expected story arc was because the playwright has a mischievous girlfriend who would re-write the text when he wasn’t looking.

We soon developed an inside joke that when things did not go as planned in our lives, we would say, “That woman in Belgium is laughing her head off.”

Brushing Brussels aside, I am not of the school of thought that believes things happen for a reason. I am not a proponent of the saying “If something was meant to be, it will happen”. The figures of Clotho, Atropos, and [who is the third Fate?] are only mythical beings. Events happen because of known actions, actors, and choices. Not only does this Universe not care about you, it doesn’t know you exist. The main force guiding a person’s fate is that person. A person makes their own choices and then makes more choices based on the consequences of those earlier actions. Other people make choices that affect your life, but ultimately you [and I] are solely responsible for your [and my] choices.

I grant you that it is a far scarier world to live in knowing that the Universe, Fate, God, or the Force is not looking after you if you grant me that it is a more adult and empowering existence to know that you are in [almost] total control.

While I believe in the meaningless of life, I do believe that life has its purpose, which is to live it. If I can say that I believe in a higher power, it would be Nature. More specifically, it is the power of Life to perpetuate itself. The laws of physics and the theory of natural selection (to name but a few) are the best tools I have seen to demonstrate how Reality works.

You can try and equate my concept of Nature with your concept of God if you must. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself through the night.

Nature, and by extension, Life, has its rhythms and cycles. Nature does not break its routine lightly so when it does, I have learned to stop and observe. In a similar fashion, when the routine of my individual life is altered, I place my faith in the following Lesson:

Listen to serendipity

When I was in the seventh grade, I was part of a carpool that took me to middle school. My school was close enough that I could ride my bicycle, but my parents felt it was safer for me to go by car because of the busy roads I would have to cross.

On one particular Tuesday, I did not go with the carpool. Our arts teacher had decided to put on a play and I wanted to audition for it. As the tryouts would be after school, I would have to miss the carpool. I rode my bike to school managing to avoid all the obstacles and predators my parents fretted about.

At school, I found out I had written down the wrong date for the audition. It was Thursday, not Tuesday.

Riding back from school, I was berating myself for not being able to comprehend my abbreviations. Is it my fault that “T” can stand for both Tuesday and Thursday? Once I create my society, I will mandate that all days of the week have different first letters.

Sorry, I’m really going to need a road map if I keep taking these conversational side roads. Swerving back on to the main road…

As I made the turn on to my own street, it was as if I could hear myself calling for help to cure me of my absent-mindedness. However, I wondered, why would the voice in my head be female?

It dawned on me that I was actually hearing someone call for help.

I stopped my bicycle and began calling back. The voice continued to call for help as I homed in on it. I finally came to a wooden gate leading into a backyard. I had passed by this house many times before and seen the couple that lived there every once in a while. I think I even recalled that their last name was something like Farber or Feldspar. I slowly opened the gate and espied a long, narrow concrete walkway with a thin vegetable garden planted by a brick wall. Sprawled on her back on the walkway [is there a synonym for walkway?] was an older woman. As I was in seventh grade, “older” was a relative term for me and she could have been anywhere from twenty-five to sixty-five (although I found out later she was fifty).

“Uh…hello?” I called from the gate.

The woman turned her head and exclaimed, “Oh, thank goodness!”

“Are you okay?” I asked apparently thinking that was absolutely normal for a woman to be on her back staring up at the clouds while in a gardening outfit.

“No,” she replied. “I slipped and I think my hip is broken. Can you help me, please?”

I entered the backyard and approached the fallen woman.

My mind was furiously trying to figure out how I could help her. Do I set the leg? What can I use for splints? Do I move her? Do I leave her?

She interrupted my internal triage by asking, “Could you be a dear and phone the fire department?”

This was the days before 9-1-1 was ubiquitous so I walked into her kitchen and next to the phone was a sticker with all the emergency phone numbers. I called the fire department and did my best to explain the situation of a woman in need.

“What is your address?” the person on the other end of the line asked.

“It’s about ten houses down from where I live,” I explained (not so) helpfully.

“Can you ask the woman what her address is?” the dispatcher asked.

For a person with a possibly broken hip and who had a sore throat from calling for help, she was more than patient with me than one would have expected. After I hung up with the fire department, she asked if I could call her husband.

I phoned his office and a gruff voice answered.

“Is this Mr. Farmer?” I asked (after I had received the correct surname from the injured woman).

“Yes. Who’s this?” he asked back, probably curious why such a young squeaky voice would be calling him.

“My name is David and I’m calling from your home. Your wife asked me to call you. She had an accident. She’s okay. I called the fire department and they’re coming. Your wife asked if you could come home.”

“I’ll be right there,” he said quickly before hanging up.

I went back to Mrs. Farmer and we chatted while we waited for the emergency crew to arrive. She told me that she had been calling out for about an hour and was starting to become tired. I explained to her that it was just dumb luck that I happened to be on my bicycle. Had I been in my carpool, I never would have heard her.

When the fire truck and paramedics arrived, I made my way out of the backyard, hopped back on my trusty two-wheeled steed, and left without either of us saying good-bye.

I returned home and my parents asked how my audition went. I told them of my mistake and so they pressed me on where I had been since I was home so late. I nonchalantly related to them my adventures in Mrs. Farmer’s backyard as if saving damsels in distress was just the kind of everyday occurrence that we guys do.

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David goes on to list two other instances of serendipity guiding his life, but I’ll hold on those for another posting.

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To mark my return to the joy that is the Internet and the wonderment that is blogging, let me commemorate the 127th birthday of American poet Sara Teasdale, a member of my former college roommate’s (David G.) troika.

Now I have written before on the anniversary of her death (see here), but this is the first time I will take the time to celebrate her arrival, rather than her depature.

For my own arrival to the City of Lights, I have decided to select this poem. I hope you enjoy it as I, too, look forward to celebrating…

PARIS IN SPRING

The city’s all a-shining
Beneath a fickle sun,
A gay young wind’s a-blowing,
The little shower is done.
But the rain-drops still are clinging
And falling one by one –
Oh it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And spring-time has begun.

I know the Bois is twinkling
In a sort of hazy sheen,
And down the Champs the gray old arch
Stands cold and still between.
But the walk is flecked with sunlight
Where the great acacias lean,
Oh it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And the leaves are growing green.

The sun’s gone in, the sparkle’s dead,
There falls a dash of rain,
But who would care when such an air
Comes blowing up the Seine?
And still Ninette sits sewing
Beside her window-pane,
When it’s Paris, it’s Paris,
And spring-time’s come again.

As the family I start the process of settling in to our new home (and we are still waiting for the majority of our stuff…including my main computer) and routine, I look forward to many walks along the Seine.

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Sara Teasdale: Barter

There must be something in the water as this week I seem to be focused on my college roommate’s, David G., concept of the troika – and especially his troika.

Today, January 29, marks the 78th anniversary of the death of American poet Sara Teasdale, who was one-third of David’s troika.

Sadly, Teasdale ended her life by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Much of her poetry is depressing so I guess it is not that surprising that she would kill herself, but while doing some research to commemorate this anniversary of her passing, I came across this poem of hers which is quite uplifting…

BARTER

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And childrens’s faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstacy
Give all you have been, or could be.

What is my takeaway from this poem? It is that though happiness and joy may be fleeting, it is worth the price.

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I realize it has been quite some time since I have posted the writings of David G., my former college roomate.

The delay has been completely my fault, because I truly find this chapter of David’s writing distasteful and out-of-line. My own feelings aside about the repugnancy of the words below, a promise is a promise and I intend to keep my word.

To catch up on my other posting of the first two chapters from David’s manuscript, you can click here for Chapter 00 and here for Chapter 01.

As I have written before about David’s style of writing, he wrote in a somewhat haphazardly and often left parts of the manuscript incomplete or with notes to himself on how to possibly improve his choice of words. I will try to recreate this mode of his by using brackets and the bold font [Like this]. I have also attempted to correct some of his spelling errors, but not all.

Again, I will remind you that David’s opinions are strictly his and not those of the author of this blog.

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Form Your Troika – Chapter 02

THE DEVIL CAN CITE SCRIPTURE

In the Acknowledgements section of A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking writes that he was warned that each equation he included in his book would halve his sales. I will go one step further and lose seventy-five percent of you right here and now with the following five words: Organized religion is for children.

Oh, let me be perfectly clear about this. I am in no way stating that only humans under the age of sixteen should be practicing a faith. What I mean with my quintet of words is that organized religion is for those people (of any age) who have not grown up and have not matured intellectually.

I did not come to this conclusion quickly or easily. Growing up as I did in a Jewish household, attending services, and having a Bar Mitzvah, I have struggled between what I have observed in the world and what my faith taught me.

At the battle’s end, rational, logical observation won out.

I completely understand the position that faith cannot be analyzed logically. Religious belief, so the argument goes, is felt and is therefore immune from any rational critique. I just think that scrap of reasoning is garbage. Telephone psychics, astrologers, peddlers of pseudoscience, and other con men [do I really want to use that phrase?] use the same hand-waving rationale also.

Because of my lack of worldliness, I must exclude the Eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, etc.) from my blanket statement regarding organized religions [Does this sentence need further elaboration or a better position in this chapter?]. I simply do not know enough about those faiths to throw them in the same medium-sized bin as folk who say they can talk with the dead.

I am not arguing for the abolition of organized religion as scared little children need fairy tales to let them sleep through the night also. I simply see mass-marketed faiths for what they are. All religions are a franchise that attempt to offer a balm for a scary, unpredictable world.

If I may distill millennia of dogma into some pithy statements, folks of the cloth like to say that bad stuff happens because the Devil caused it or because the Almighty was upset with you. Evil people may escape punishment in this life, but they will suffer eternal consequences in the afterlife. The pious and good may suffer inequalities and injustice, but their reward will come later after they’re dead. These are simply justifications made by the higher-ups to placate and mollify those on the lower (and poorer) end of the ladder.

In addition to attempting to explain why life is the way it is, the four major Western [how about "Eurasian"?] religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)) share two other qualities:

Alpha) They are based on illogical premises.

Omega) They are adverse to criticism.

Let’s start with how the Big Four all arose from fables that strain credulity. Judaism is rooted in the belief that the people of Israel are chosen by the Lord. As proof of this relationship, the Almighty gave the tribes of Israel the land of Canaan after they were freed from bondage in Egypt. The Exodus, as the departure from Pharaoh’s slavery is called, is such an important part of the Jewish identity that it has its own book in the Torah. The next three books (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are all set during the time when the Israelites were wandering out of Egypt on their forty-year trek to find the Promised Land. The Passover holiday feast which commemorates the Exodus is actually a commandment given by the Lord for Jews to follow so that they will always remember their release from slavery (as found in Leviticus 23:5-7 for those of you with the King James Version at home).

The leap of faith comes when you discover the fact that there is no evidence for the Israelites or any other gigantic mass of slaves being freed from Egypt. Nowhere in the historical records of the ancient Egyptians is such an event recorded and it’s not as if they didn’t leave behind a voluminous system of writing to document what their life was like. The most incriminating evidence, however, comes from the text itself. In the Book of Exodus, there is no mention of pyramids at all. At over [how many?] feet high, these monuments in stone [granite? What are the Pyramids made of?] would have been tough to miss.

The core concept of what it means to be a Jew (to be chosen by the Lord to accept and live by His commandments) crumbles if the Exodus never existed. If there was no long march through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, then Moses never went to Mt. Sinai and received the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, if there was no large migration of Israelite slaves from Egypt, this means that they were never in Egypt to begin with. If they were never in Egypt to begin with, this means that the whole story told near the end of the Book of Genesis that details how Joseph, his brothers, and their father, Jacob, make their way into the Land of the Pharaohs didn’t happen. So, if that story in Genesis is in doubt, then other tales from that first section of the Torah (such as Abraham receiving the Covenant from the Lord) become suspicious. The conclusion I draw is that since there was no Exodus, this means that the group of nomads who show up on the borders of Canaan were not freed by a Supreme Deity who they had a Covenant with. Therefore, these wanderers from wherever did not possess two stone tablets with the law from on high, but were, in fact, only land-grabbers using religion to stake their claim on a piece of hot real estate.

Since I’ve only managed to piss off fourteen million people worldwide with what I have written so far, let’s go for the big fish.

Christianity, in all of its denominations, has at its center the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Son of God. The proof of the divinity of Jesus was his virgin birth. No man, only God, entered Mary to conceive Jesus.

How many fathers would buy this excuse from their daughters?

Like Judaism, if you take away the central tenet of the virgin birth of Jesus, and therefore his divinity, the foundation of the religion crumbles like a statue with feet of clay.

Oh, why stop now when I can piss off another billion people?

The Koran is the holiest book in all of Islam. Children learn this book by reciting its verses over and over. Moslem [Muslim?] children brought up this way probably know the Koran better than most Jews and Christians know their respective Testaments. The Koran, like the Ten Commandments, was given to Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah. However, unlike the tablets delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Koran was revealed to the Prophet who wrote it all down.

The catch here is that the Prophet was illiterate (check out line 157 of Chapter 7, “The Heights”). The paradox of a man who could not write being able to act as the scribe for Allah, much like the paradox of the virgin birth, only proves, in the mind of the believer, that the Koran is divinely inspired. Once again, knock away the divine origin of the Koran and one is left with the conclusion that Prophet was indeed literate and wrote the holy book himself. With that, the pillars holding up Islam collapse. How dangerous is it to even articulate such a thought? In The Satanic Verses, author Salman Rushdie has a fictional version of the Prophet create verses of the Koran. For this, Rushdie’s life was threatened over what, in reality, was a mediocre novel. [Perhaps these sentences on Rushdie could go into the section about religious criticism]

As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the LDS Church was also formed on the basis of divine words being presented to a mere mortal. Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni. Given such a gift, a person can do one of two things. He can share it openly with the world and let any and all eyes gaze upon the wonder. Option number two is to shut the gift away from the sunlight and only allow certain, special individuals the privilege of viewing the heavenly grant, but only under certain conditions.

Guess which option Joseph Smith took?

Did Joseph Smith actually receive a set of golden tables from a celestial being in 1820? Could be yes – could be no. It sure would be a tad easier to answer that question if one could view the tablets. Smith said that Moroni had forbidden Smith to let anyone else view the plates. I could claim I have a dragon in my garage and how could you prove me wrong if I wouldn’t let you near my house. Subtract the divine origin of the golden plates and Joseph Smith becomes merely a pitchman for seer stones.

There are cults and sects now and in the future that will create their foundations on such similar murky beginnings. The only difference between them and the Big Four is time and a bit of luck.

Let’s do a quick recap. In the last twenty-five paragraphs, I have probably managed to offend over two billion people. If I had the inclination, I could probably figure out how many people I ticked off on a per-word basis. This offensiveness leads to my second common quality of the Big Four in that they are adverse to criticism. If you think I am off the mark on this generalization, just ask yourself if you had a gut visceral reaction to my words above about your particular holy faith. I can wager that if you count yourself as one of the devout that you currently have the desire to throw this book into a bonfire, sweep up its ashes, seal them in a tin can, and entomb said can in a concrete block. I certainly can’t blame you for having those feelings because look at how Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the LDS Church deal with any critical review.

Any criticism of Judaism is equated with anti-Semitism [need examples here].

Any differing view of Christianity brings cries of intolerance [discuss the protests over the movies The Last Temptation of Christ, Hail Mary, and Monty Python's The Life of Brian].

Any straying from Islam orthodoxy brings a death penalty [move the Salman Rushdie example here?].

Any questioning of the LDS Church brings excommunication [expand on the examples of David P. Wright, Janice Allred, Margaret Toscano, and Shane LeGrande Whelan - all thrown out of the Church for daring to ask].

As it was one of the quotes that would have me thrown off the air in Utah, I’ll finish this section with it, “Any group that cannot tolerate dissent is suspect and not worthy of your time.”

 

So when did I exit the cave of organized religion? The answer is once I started developing thought that was independent, rational, logical, and capable of skepticism. For that, you can blame the University of Wisconsin. It was there that I started to doubt the tenets of my faith. It was there, after really reading the Torah and Bible all the way through for the first time, that I saw that a leaky pail holds more water than those texts.

Starting with the Book of Genesis, the story goes that when Cain slew Abel, Cain was sent away, dwelt in the land of Nod, and knew (in the Biblical sense) his wife (Genesis 4:16-17). Where did this wife come from? According to the first book of the Torah, the Lord created Adam (Genesis 2:7) and Eve (Genesis 2:22) and they begat Abel, Cain, Seth, and other nameless “sons and daughters” (Genesis 4:1, 4:2, 4:25, and 5:4 respectively). That’s it for the human-creation department.

So, where did Cain’s wife come from?

A younger, cuter, and still religious version of me once asked my local rabbi that same question as I was puzzled about Cain’s spouse. His ready-made answer (since I was not the first, nor the last, lad to make this inquiry) was that Cain’s wife was one of those other sons and daughters. Nice answer, but it doesn’t make sense chronologically. It is only after the world’s first murder when Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4:8) that Seth is born. It is only after Seth is born that all the other nameless progeny are conceived (again, Genesis 5:4). If all the other “sons and daughters” don’t appear until well after Cain has left for Nod, then my question still stands as to the origin of Cain’s wife.

Oh, and if the timeline doesn’t matter, then my rabbi’s answer means that Cain married his sister. That may not be a lesson the rabbis want to pass on to the kiddies, but you ain’t read nothing yet.

Let’s fast-forward to the nineteenth chapter of Genesis where Lot offers up his daughters for rape to a mob outside his house. In this touching tale, two angels came to Lot to let him know that the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be annihilated and that it might be a good time to vacate the premises. Word spreads that there are two beautiful men visiting Lot and so a mob appears because they would like to “know them” (Genesis 19:5) again using that Biblical version of the word (read: have sex with). Lot, in a brilliant move of distraction, instead offers his virgin daughters as a consolation prize to the mob and suggests the rabble “…do to them as you please…” (Genesis 19:8).

Remember that Lot was the good man found by Abraham to be spared from the destruction of the cities. Now there’s a role model I want to pass on to the little ones.

Then there is this extremely revealing quote that is part of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:5, it is stated by the Almighty that “I am a jealous god”. Yeppers, this is the type of All-Knowing Omni-Father that I want to base my life on.

All through this questioning, however, was a firm belief that while I did not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or that of the Trinity, or of Allah, I still did firmly believe in a guiding presence.

That all flew out the window on Friday, September 14, 2001. Yes, you read that right. My faith did not collapse on the preceding Tuesday. Honestly, if I could accept a deity that could allow thousands to be killed in a poison gas leak in Bhopal, India, and if I could allow for a supreme being that would look the other way while hundreds of thousands were snuffed out in an earthquake and if I could fathom an all-seeing Father that wouldn’t bat an eye while a million souls were extinguished in a state-sponsored genocide, then a mere three thousand folk slaughtered in three office buildings and four planes would be a mere mote in His eye.

While listening to the 9/11 service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on that Friday, I heard Reverend Billy Graham speak. It was during his speech that he said the following:

I have been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I do not know the answer. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and that He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.

I know it has been bandied about ad nauseam that we humans cannot know the mind of God, but Graham’s implicit acceptance of pain and suffering reminded me of something else. It called to mind domestic abuse. How many stories have you read where the bruised wife or the girlfriend with the knocked-out teeth goes back to the abuser because she knows in her heart that he is good and kind and really, really, really loves her? That speech and that moment is when I decided I wanted out of this abusive relationship. I walked away from God, a Supreme Being, a higher force, and every other fairy tale people have invented to act as a night light for their fears.

In short, I grew up.

Given my knowledge that a higher power does not exist, the final item I placed on my To Death List may seem rather odd. However, unlike any true believer of the Big Four, I am willing to admit that I may be wrong. If I am mistaken, then I will have lost Pascal’s Wager, but I will have won my bet that, just like Exodus 20:5 states, the man upstairs is a “jealous god” and not worthy of my worship. If Yahweh does exist and His rules of conduct are set down for all to see and follow then I can think of no better way to piss Him off than by executing the following Step:

 

Break ten Biblical rules

 

I had originally thought of breaking all of the Ten Commandments, but I couldn’t find a consistent set of these seemingly basic rules. It is not that well known, but there are two versions of these heaven-sent laws.

According to page 615 of The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2004, Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians follow the Jewish tradition which splits up the first two commandments (I: Thou shalt have no other gods before me; II: Thou shalt not make any graven images). Roman Catholic and Lutheran tradition combine the first two and split up the last two (IX: Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s goods; X: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife).

Even if I could figure out what set of commandments to use, there is the problem of translation. Yes, I know it may come as a shock to some people, but the Torah and Bible were not originally written in English. Translating anything involves some loss of meaning and apparently the Good Book suffers the same affliction. An example is the Sixth Commandment (using the Jewish method of counting) which in my King James version states, “Thou shalt not kill”. However, the Torah [who was the publisher?] I received on my Bar Mitzvah lists this edict as “Thou shalt not murder”. If translators can’t even agree on this basic rule from the Lord, what hope is there for the rest of the words?

As a side note, I also abandoned the notion of breaking the Big Ten because the goddess Originality must be appeased. [There is a film with this as its main idea…what is the title? When did it come out? Who starred?]

Since someone else had already taken that idea, I ditched the Decalogue and decided to break ten other rules mentioned in the Torah. When I attended a Jewish summer camp, I had a counselor state to me and my fellow twelve-year-old campers that there were 365 “thou shalt not” commandments in the Torah – one for every day of the year. Our counselor imparted onto us that if a person attempted to break a different rule for every day of the year, that person would be dead before the year was up. I guess our young impressionable minds were supposed to take this as proof of the Lord’s vengeance. Our counselor helpfully informed us that the rule-breaker would die because one of the commandments to be broken is the canon ‘gainst self-slaughter [Where does Torah have the rule against suicide?]

It was at that camp that I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien. One of the nighttime routines was to have a counselor or administrator go to a different cabin and perform some activity. Some people sang or played the guitar. Scott Binder, the activities coordinator and the number four guy at the camp, came in one night and read the first chapter of The Hobbit. It was so mesmerizing to be lying in a sleeping bag on the top rung of a bunk bed in a room lit only by a sole flickering candle and hear about the strange new world of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit-hole he lived in, the wizard who puts a strange mark on the hobbit’s door, and the dwarves who come for dinner. After that camp session, I begged my parents relentlessly for them to help me find this book so I could discover how it all turned out.

I also recall Mr. Binder because he was the first adult, other than my parents, to grant me a sense of responsibility. As a fun camp activity, one day was scheduled as Camper-Counselor Switcheroo Day. Counselors selected one of their charges to head the cabin for the day. I was upset that my counselor chose someone else, but I soon found out why I was passed over. Mr. Binder had selected me to be the activities coordinator that day. This meant that I had to plan the morning assembly, make sure all the activity locations were prepared, ensure that all the counselors knew their schedule, and even mediate disputes. It was the least fun I had at camp, the hardest I ever worked at camp, and, overall, the most rewarding day I ever had in my six years at that camp. That day showed me that all of the effortless fun I enjoyed as a camper was actually the result of endless hard work and planning. Mr. Binder trusted me enough that he thought I could do a good job and I did not disappoint him.

Mr. Binder is also fondly remembered on these pages for his Bar Mitzvah gift to me. He gave me three books. One was an encyclopedia of Jewish humor. The second was The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal, the story of how a Jew in a German concentration camp meets an injured SS officer in a hospital. The officer, near death, asks the Jew for forgiveness. The last book was a collection of science fiction stories that revolved around the theme of Judaism. His note that came with the gift explained that these works represented the past, present, and future. He wrote that one must recall the past to live in the present and it is that present that paves the way for the future.

More than twenty years later, it is the only Bar Mitzvah gift I still have.

Well, that was quite a digression. I’ll try and keep those to a minimum but since we’re early in our conversation together, I hope you’ll forgive my trespasses. Speaking of straying from the path (were we?), it turns out that it is not overly difficult to violate ten rules of the Torah, but I did have to be selective.

There was no way I was going to go against the prohibition in Leviticus 18:23 (“Neither shalt thou lie with any beast…”). I may be depressed and planning my own death, but I do have my standards.

Some rules were news to me. According to the Holy of Holies, who told Moses, who then passed it along to his brother Aaron (in a game of divine telephone), it is forbidden to eat camel (Leviticus 11:4). Fortunately, that’s a menu item I don’t see often.

While reading through the Five Books of Moses, I realized I had already, inadvertently, broken ten Biblical rules.

Leviticus 11:5 prohibits the eating of a coney.

A quick check of my dictionary shows me that a ‘coney’ is a rabbit. This rule was broken at a swanky restaurant in Los Angeles. [Do I want to add for grins & giggles, “This is not the eatery where I saw Jamie Lee Curtis”?]

Leviticus 11:6 prohibits the eating of a hare.

What is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? About twenty miles per hour. I enjoyed hare at a New Orleans restaurant when I visited Charlotte.

Leviticus 11:7 prohibits the eating of swine.

I’ve eaten pork too many times to count.

Leviticus 11:30 lists snails as a forbidden food item.

I ate snails with Ophelia at an extremely uptight French (isn’t that redundant?) establishment in Madison, Wisconsin, that we dubbed Café Pretentious.

Leviticus 17:12 forbids the drinking of blood.

Suffice it to say that this occurred during an extremely intense game of Truth Or Dare during college.

Leviticus 19:35 requests that there be no “unrighteousness in judgment…in weight, or in measure.”

I lied about my weight on my driver’s license.

Leviticus 23:7 is the commandment against working during Passover.

Much to my grandmother’s dismay, I have worked during Passover when I was in high school, college, and later.

Deuteronomy 6:14 is the line “Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you”.

In my search for the purpose of life and other spiritual questions, before I abandoned it altogether, I studied Islam and Buddhism.

Deuteronomy 14:21 is the classic Jewish taboo of mixing a kid in its mother’s milk [aka "combining meat and dairy"].

Who knew that every time I ate a cheeseburger I was breaking the Lord’s law?

Deuteronomy 16:3 prohibits eating bread during Passover.

Not only have I worked during Passover, I’ve eaten bread also. Matzah, the unleavened bread used during the Passover Seder, has a unique, bland taste, and I can really only take it in short bursts [or “, and it is useless to make a Reuben sandwich with.”]. The Passover holiday lasts over a week and I cannot live on unleavened bread alone.

By the ninth month of 2001, with ten Biblical rules broken and a sweat not, I could officially say of my To Death List, “Halfway there”.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Back to me and again, I apologize for the above for any and all offense taken. However, the next chapters improve as David moves away from offending a majority of the planet.

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